In Depth

May Sweeps Sees Record Low Ratings

Strike Seems to Have Altered Viewing Habits

Low ratings during the February sweeps may have been a fluke due to the writers strike, but the May sweeps period is painting a picture of viewers out of sync with broadcast television: Shows across multiple networks rang up series lows during a time that historically lures in the viewers.

On average, the networks are off the mark by 10% from last year in total viewers and off 17% in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic.

Consistently performing shows like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” and Fox’s “The Simpsons” garnered ratings near or at their series lows in the 18-49 demo during this May sweeps period, which began April 24 and ends May 21.

NBC placed a lot of faith in “American Gladiators,” which performed well during its winter start and helped keep the network afloat during a rocky February sweep.

Coming back into the schedule on May 12, however, the show completely bottomed out, sinking 68% versus its series premiere in January.

“Gladiators’” winter launch hit an impressive 5.9 rating/14 share among viewers 18-49; it left the schedule at a 3.0/9 in February.

Even standard sweep stunts, like CBS’ “CSI”/“Two and a Half Men” crossover, in which the shows swapped writing staffs, or President Bush’s appearance on NBC’s “Deal or No Deal,” failed to move the needle substantially.

The CW resorted to funneling viewers directly to broadcast by withholding streaming episodes of the network’s freshman hit “Gossip Girl” from its Web site (although they were available for purchase via iTunes). The show is still performing within its same-day average during non-streaming weeks.

With only a couple of days left in the sweeps period, first-place Fox is poised to land near last year’s 18-49 numbers, thanks to this week’s finale of “American Idol.” Fox is currently running at a 3.5/10 average, down 13% from this time last year.

CBS currently leads the pack in households and total viewers, but the Tiffany Network is down 11% and 10%, respectively, from this time last year.

But MyNetworkTV is happy with the May sweeps; it’s averaging 1.2 million total viewers, up 35% year-to-year. MyNet is up 67% year-to-year in 18-49 for the sweeps to date and enjoyed its best-ever week last week.

The sweeps period is important in determining ad rates for TV stations, and lower viewership might send ad buyers looking elsewhere, including cable and the Internet.

The gravity of these sliding numbers was apparent no place more than at the upfront presentations to advertisers last week. Once-lavish presentations were scaled down, and the media companies focused on selling opportunities across multiple media.

Viewers out of the habit of watching broadcast TV might not return until fall, and the threat of an actors strike may have networks seeing déjà vu all over again this summer.